901. Robert Southey to John May, 23 February 1804

901. Robert Southey to John May, 23 February 1804 ⁠* 

Keswick, Feb. 23. 1804.

My Dear Friend,

Thank you for your last brief letter, which relieved me from a good deal of uneasiness. I wrote to Lisbon fully upon the subject. My uncle’s long intervals of silence would surprise me if I did not know him well, and, even as it is, at times make me anxious for his health.

If Edith, by God’s blessing, gets well through her confinement, you will perhaps see me in town towards the end of April, upon this business. [1]  You probably have seen Ellis’s ‘Specimens of the early English Poets.’ [2]  The book has sold very successfully, and I am about to publish a supplementary or companion work. There will be a preliminary essay on the state of our Literature at the Restoration, referring more particularly to poetry, as affected by that event; then, upon Ellis’s plan, and beginning where he leaves off, a brief biographical notice of every English poet from that time, with the best or most characteristic specimen of his works, arranging the authors chronologically, and bringing them down to the present time, exclusive only of living authors. I include every poet, good, bad, and indifferent, who had any reputation, or produced any effect in his day. A sort of estimate of the present state of our poetry will conclude it. And this work, with Ellis’s, will contain accounts and specimens of all the English poets, so that, reckoning upon the notoriety of his book, and the market value of my name, this bids fair to be a profitable speculation. [3]  My bargain is to share the mutual profits, being at no risk, and advancing nothing. This is all easy work, and more matter of amusement than labour, for the copying part shall all be done by some bookseller’s amanuensis. The brief biographies I shall make as full of matter as I can. The greatest part may be done here, but it will cost me a journey to London to get at the forgotten books, which perhaps are only to be found in Stationers’ Hall. [4] 

I informed you of my design to publish ‘Madoc’ as soon as that design was formed, – at that time rather in conformity with the advice of others than to my own opinion. I tried how far it would be advisable to adopt the mode of subscription, and, after feeling the ground safely and certainly, was convinced that any public attempt would be equally unwise and unsuccessful. I therefore applied to Longman, and have agreed that he shall publish it in quarto, with engravings, and share the profits with me. [5]  The vignettes are wanted to elucidate an outlandish costume and give broad hints to dull imaginations, and are therefore not mere ornaments. My reasons for preferring this agreement to a prompt payment were, that they might advance the whole capital in giving the book these eye-catching utilities, which are always hearty shoves to a heavy quarto; and that I might receive large interest, instead of paying large discount; for, in fact, that is the clear mode of stating it. I have hopes that this volume will do well, being certain that it will please those of whose approbation I am desirous. It will be ready for the press by midsummer.

You here have my plan of operations for the ensuing campaign; and to show you with how steady a face I march on, it is my constant practice, when there is no reviewing upon hand, to write three pages of history every day, [6]  before I do anything else, that if any interruption occur that may not suffer; so that, if neither illness nor accident thwart me, I shall, notwithstanding the mass of other matter, have completely exhausted all my materials in the course of two years, or very probably in less time. I am far advanced in Emanuel’s reign, [7]  but here sadly miss Castanheda, [8]  who is a far more honest historian than Barros, [9]  and on many accounts more to be trusted.

I have the two volumes which were reprinted [10]  – the same which you possess – and those I have got through; but the original work is too expensive to be purchased by me or my uncle, being one of the dearest books in the language. [11]  My uncle sent me an Italian version of the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh books, so that I am still in want of the second and third, and of the three last, and moreover do not like to trust a translation, because very often much depends upon a particular word. My only method, therefore, is to follow Albuquerque [12]  as far as he goes, and then make out my first narration from Barros and Diojo de Couto, [13]  and correct that by Castanheda, either at the museum, [14]  if the book be there, or from Lord Bute’s [15]  copy, to which he would very readily, I know, give me access.

Barros is very faithless. I detect him by the evidence of Castanheda and Damian de Goes, [16]  and sometimes by Osorius. [17]  He always varnishes his tale, and always writes so fidalgomente  [18]  that his praise is generally proportioned to the rank of the actor instead of his merits. When the fault is well understood, he becomes a most valuable writer for his great learning.

I find reason to believe, monstrous and incredible as it may appear, that the Mendicants did at one time act with a design of superseding Christ as Mohammed had done, and setting up St. Francisco [19]  in his stead. You know enough of his life to know that he was in his lifetime averred to be the living pattern and parallel of the Redeeming God; and I know where to find proofs that this blasphemy was sanctioned and abetted by the popes. The Franciscans at one time dated from the infliction of his five wounds, – in the year of our Lord and of St Francis; and it was attempted to substitute the Evangelium Sempiternum, upon the direct principle that the old Gospels were now no longer necessary. These facts justify the inference – in fact, it was palpable – that what those wretches taught was not what our Saviour taught. I think I can explain how it failed through the malice of the Dominicans, who set up their founder in opposition. The Evangelium Sempiternum was at last condemned; and I know not whether it exists in MSS., nor whether the prophecies of the Abbot Joaquim are to be found; [20]  but if I can get one or both of those, with an answer to that Evangelium preserved in MSS. in the museum, [21]  and S. Brigida’s revelations, [22]  I shall bring some very curious points of ecclesiastical history to daylight. Edith continues tolerably well, and joins me in remembrances to Mrs. May.

God bless you.

R. Southey.


* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856)
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), I, pp. 262–265. BACK

[1] The Southeys’ second child, Edith May, was born on 30 April 1804. BACK

[2] George Ellis, Specimens of the Early English Poets (1790; 2nd edn 1801; 3rd edn 1803). BACK

[3] An early reference to the project that Southey undertook with Grosvenor Charles Bedford and published with Longman in 1807 as Specimens of the Later English Poets. Full of errors, it did not sell well. BACK

[4] Near Ludgate Hill, in the City of London: a repository for old books because the Stationers’ Company, whose headquarters it is, had a royal monopoly on book production in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. BACK

[5] Southey’s poem Madoc, which he had written in 1797–1799 and was revising for publication. It was published in 1805. BACK

[6] Southey’s projected ‘History of Portugal’, which was never completed. BACK

[7] Manuel I (1469–1521, King of Portugal, 1495–1521). BACK

[8] Southey owned a copy of Fernao Lopes de Castanheda (c. 1500–1559), Historia do Discobrimento, e Conquista da India pelos Portuguezes (1797), no. 3187 in the sale catalogue of his library. BACK

[9] Southey owned a copy of Joao de Barros (1496–1570) and Diogo de Couto (c. 1542–1616), Decadas da Asia dos Feitos, que os Portuguezes Fizeram na Conquista, e Descubrimento das Terras, e Mares do Oriente (1778–1788), no. 3180 in the sale catalogue of his library, as well as Joao de Barros, Chronica do Emperador Clarimundo (1791), no. 3195. BACK

[10] No. 3262 of the sale catalogue of Southey’s library was Damião de Goes (1502–1574), Chronica do Senhor Rei D. Emanuel (1790). BACK

[11] No. 3339 of the sale catalogue of Southey’s library suggests that he did eventually acquire the original of De Goes’ work, Chronica do Rei Dom Emanuel da Gloriosa Memoria (1566–1567). BACK

[12] Afonso de Albuquerque (1453–1515), Commentarios do Grande Afonso Dalboquerque (1576; 2nd edn 1776) or Duarte de Albuquerque Coelho (1591–1658) Memorias Diarias de la Guerra del Brazil (1654). BACK

[13] See note 9. BACK

[14] The British Museum. BACK

[15] John Stuart, 1st Marquess of Bute (1744–1814; DNB), whose diplomatic career had ended in 1798. He was a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and a trustee of the British Museum. BACK

[16] See notes 8 and 10. BACK

[17] No. 2067 of the sale catalogue of Southey’s library was Hieronymus Osorius (1506–1580), De Rebus Emmanuelis Lusitanæ Regis (1791). BACK

[18] Meaning with the mindset of an Iberian knight. BACK

[19] Saint Francis of Assisi (Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone; 1181/2–1226), the founder of the Franciscan order of Catholic mendicants BACK

[20] The Introductorium in Evangelium Aeternum was written (c. 1250) by Fra Gherardo of Borgo San Donnino (dates unknown), a Franciscan follower of the mystic Joachim di Fiore (1132–1202). Joachim di Fiore was a Cistercian abbot, mystic and interpreter of Biblical prophecy who argued that the world was approaching a third epoch (superseding the Old and New Testament epochs) – the epoch of the Eternal Gospel, the Kingdom of the Holy Spirit, when all would live in love, no longer needing law. The Franciscan Joachists wished to spiritualise their order: they argued that Joachim’s three books (Liber Concordiae Novi ac Veteris Testamenti, Expositio in Apocalipsim, and Psalterium Decem Cordarum) constituted the Eternal Gospel, replacing the Gospel of Christ, for the spiritual life had ebbed from the Old and New Testaments. The existing priesthood and Bible would be superseded and a kingdom of love would begin. A manuscript containing extracts from Joachim’s prophecies was in the British Museum in Southey’s time and is now in the British Library (shelfmark Royal 8 F XVI). BACK

[21] The British Library, formerly the British Museum, holds a manuscript containing the ‘Protocol of the commission of three cardinals held at Anagni, 8 July, 1255, resulting in the condemnation for heresy of the ‘Introductorius in Evangelium Aeternum’ ‘‘ (shelfmark Royal 8 F XVI). BACK

[22] ‘St Brigida’s revelations’ refers to Birgitta Birgersdotter (1303–1373): Swedish saint whose visions of Jesus and a blonde Virgin Mary were influenced by the Franciscans and published as Revelationes Coelestes. Southey’s copy of Revelationes Celestes … Beate Brigitte … de Regno Suecie (1517) was no. 2395 in the sale catalogue of his library. BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)